David Cameron has been pressed to consider making reparations to Caribbean countries for Britain’s role in the slave trade as he arrived for a two-day visit.
The UK Prime Minister flew into Jamaica promising a £200m infrastructure aid boost to “reinvigorate” ties with the region – with UK firms set to compete to build roads, ports and bridges.
He said the cash would make the UK the largest individual donor to the region and that he wanted to concentrate on future relations between the countries not on centuries-old issues.
But his mission was at risk of being overshadowed by a row over whether the former colonial power should apologise and make financial amends for historic slavery.
Jamaican prime minister Portia Simpson Miller said she had raised the controversial question during one-to-one talks with the PM at her official residence in Kingston.
She said she told him that while she was “aware of the obvious sensitivities”, Jamaica was “involved in a process under the auspices of the Caribbean Community to engage the UK on the matter”.
Mr Cameron made no mention of the issue after the talks – but Number 10 said he had made clear to his opposite number that he “understood it was an issue for some people”.
However he “reiterated the long-standing position of the United Kingdom that we do not believe reparations is the right approach”.
Speaking to reporters on the flight to the Caribbean, Mr Cameron made clear he did not want to focus on the issue.
“This is about the future relationship and about what we should be doing together economically in terms of trade and investment and this significant infrastructure fund I am announcing,” he said.
“So that is what the visit is about, it’s talking about the future.”
One Jamaican MP has threatened to boycott the PM’s speech at the country’s parliament if he does not engage on the issue.
Critics have pointed to compensation paid to one of Mr Cameron’s own ancestors for the loss of his slaves at the time of abolition in 1834 as a reason he should personally apologise.
Bert Samuels, a member of Jamaica’s National Commission on Reparations, told Television Jamaica: “His lineage has been traced and his forefathers were slave-owners and benefited from slavery. Therefore he needs to atone, to apologise personally and on behalf of his country.”
He said his countrymen had been “left behind because of racism” and should now be compensated.
The issue of slave-owning nations compensating former colonies for the trade is a hot one in the Caribbean, where national commissions have calculated the sums could run into trillions of dollars.
One suggestion has been that the money could be provided in the form of debt relief.
Mrs Simpson Miller told the United Nations in 2013 there should be “an international discussion in a non-confrontational manner” and its parliament had passed a motion backing reparations.
Jamaican MP Mike Henry told The Gleaner newspaper “If it is not on the agenda, I will not attend any functions involving the visiting prime minister, and I will cry shame on those who do, considering that there was not a dissenting voice in the debate in parliament.”
Records show General James Duff, a first cousin six times removed of the PM who was also an MP, was awarded compensation worth around £3m in today’s terms.